What are the likely reasons some older Windows XP machines would slow down after several months of use?

Joe Videtto May 6, 2012
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Hi all,

I work in an elementary school with no budget for new computers, but they are lucky enough to have a lab with about 30 old Dell Optiplex GX 270’s (circa 2005) – you may have seen my question asking about the most economical way to replace them.

But…maybe we don’t have to replace them – I’ve read the great makeuseof article about extending the life of an old machine by installing Ubuntu – the only trouble is, our DOE tech support group does not support this operating system – and I can see why, since I had a friend with a similar machine that was experiencing boot problems, and after many hours of troubleshooting, I was still unable to resolve the problem.

That said, one of our biggest problems is ‘slowness’ of the machines.
For some reason, these machines always run very slowly;

When reimaged, they run reasonably quickly for a while, but then after a few months of use – mostly internet use, they slow down to a crawl (for example, to open the browser can take 30 to 60 seconds, to open Windows explorer and select the “File Search” menu item can take the same, to simply open a new program via Sart…Programs…Assessories…Notepad can take the same, etc.)

It is a known fact that our Internet connection speeds are typically .5 to .8 M.

Can anyone give some suggestions on what might be slowing down these machines – or diagnostics I can run to help determine why these machines run so slowly after several months ?

Our IT group is quick to come and re-image, but I’d like to get to the root of the problem.

  1. DalSan Mack
    May 30, 2012 at 5:11 am

    I would install CCleaner or Glary Utilities and use them a couple times a week to get rid of the clutter for you without having to search for them. Tweaking.com Simple Performance Boost will help reduce resource hogging services and Windows features to speed things up also. All are free, though you might want to get the commercial version for legal reasons.

  2. Joe Videtto
    May 12, 2012 at 12:18 pm

    Would anyone know of a premade checklist with all the great suggestions you offered ? If not - I will make one out of all the great suggestions below, and ask you guys to see if you can add any other points.

    One other important thing I didn't tell you about the machines - about half have 256K ram, and the other half have 512K. You can't even really buy the ram at a cost effective upgrade price (it's really like 'antique') ram. That said - should we just scrap the 256K Ram Machines. I'm not sure if we can take the TOTAL number of 256K RAM machines and combine RAM to make 1/2 that number of 512K machines. That might be an idea you guys have inspired me to think of

    ...or can we somehow make good use of the 256K RAM machines for browsing and running old windows programs created in the time that these machines came out.

    Thanks again for all your great, very helpful comments

    • Bill Krebs
      November 6, 2012 at 11:00 pm

      You can find any old or new memory you need on eBay. You can most likely find 256K ram for $5 to $10 dollars. A fresh install or re-imaging makes them run faster because they have not been bogged down by huge and resource hungry updates and anti-virus programs that increasingly consume your resources and bring any windows machine with less than a gig of memory and 100 gig HD to a crawl. Laga Mahesa had the best solution running a Lite Windows version. Maximizing memory is the single best boost you can give the hardware.

  3. Laga Mahesa
    May 9, 2012 at 1:20 pm

    To answer your question :

    - The registry auto-bloats, little you can do about that.
    - Temp files, Net caches, prefetch files, etc. Clean 'em out.
    - Malware.

    All of this is eliminated with the steps I outlined in my earlier post.

  4. Laga Mahesa
    May 9, 2012 at 1:17 pm

    Being elementary, and a school to boot, you're not allowing arbitrary installs of random software.

    I'm in a similar situation, a high school though in my case, running the language and intro to CS lab. Same cheap Dell machines, even, with 512 Mb of RAM, lol.

    So. Do what I did :

    1) Get / setup a Lite copy of XP. Install all software, tidy the desktop, setup accounts, etc.

    2) Install Folder Guard (www.winability.com) to protect against users (Lock the desktop, wallpaper, only allow document saves to a specific location, no EXE access to USB, etc)

    3) Install Returnil to restore to a clean, pristine system with each boot.

    4) Image with Ghost and copypasta across your stations, changing IP and machine name before locking down Returnil.

    With this setup, performance has remained the same for nearly two and a half years and installments / adjustments are easy to perform with a master machine.

    • Joe Videtto
      May 12, 2012 at 12:37 pm

      Great suggestions - I'm going to try this.

      I haven't read our DOE IT's policy, but I believe if we don't use the DOE network, we can actually install and run whatever we want. There's no security risk to the DOE's network if we're not attached to it...then again, we can't use the internet from the school , but probably there's a lot of cheap or low-cost software we can run locally to great gains. Though I've been having trouble finding that software....just realized, you can probably buy the 'old' software from the days those machines were new for very cheap (or even find donations, etc.)

      The question then, is which software to try to get for elementary school kids - this has been a challenge for me, as I'm new to the field. But one thing I've learned is kids can use lots of software, enjoy the wonderful sounds and video aspects of the program, and learn very little about the actual 'academic' skills the programs are advertised to build.

      • Laga Mahesa
        May 12, 2012 at 1:08 pm

        Regarding software, there's plenty of free stuff out there that's more than suitable for elementary classes. For example, if you want to delve into programming (which we do with Elementary), look up Scratch (http://scratch.mit.edu/). Look for software like that which teaches indirectly - the aim is fun with education being a great byproduct.

        Regarding the network, what I do is have all the machines in the lab on a seperate subnet, which uses the teacher's machine as a gateway/router. That way you have full control over network access and allow/disallow as it suits you.

        Specifically, I use Proxomitron - a very old, but robust piece of software - which is a web proxy with filtering. I can selectively allow/disallow types of sites, specific sites, entire languages, etc. Excellent for the carrot approach, rather than the stick.

        • Joe Videtto
          May 13, 2012 at 12:13 pm


          Thanks so much for your insights - can you recommend any other sites where people are having the detailed technical discussions regarding best software and hardware products/configurations for a school setting ? Your tips were really great (I've found no sites with such specific suggestions on these topics)

        • Laga Mahesa
          May 14, 2012 at 12:10 am

          I've no idea, sorry. Periodically I look around and find a few, but the discussions tend to peter out and never get anywhere.

          There are plenty of good discussions on iPad use - but PCs? Nope.

    • Joe Videtto
      May 12, 2012 at 12:39 pm

      "Lite" XP - looking forward to learning about that, never heard of it. Do those lite XP licenses need to be purchased new, or if we have the XP license, are we entitle to load the lite version.

      • Laga Mahesa
        May 12, 2012 at 1:03 pm

        'Lite' editions are non-sanctioned, they are user hacks. I used 98Lite and LitePC (www.litepc.com) to produce my own custom one - you can find premade ones floating around if you look hard enough. If you do, just use your license instead of the temporary one.

        What is a 'Lite' version? Take what you know of windows, remove all the unnecessary / unused parts. What's left is lean, mean, and vastly more stable... though your mileage may vary.

        My version installs to under 1 gb and is fully functional.

  5. j arthur rank
    May 9, 2012 at 2:18 am

    I have to disagree with your DOE tech staff. I ran a lab of 10 Dell PCs, P4, between 1.8Ghz and 2.4 Ghz processors, and none with more than 1 Gb ram. I got absolutely fed up with the time it took to make the continual updates not only to the XP-SP3 operating system, but to keep the machines clean and functioning. That's when I discovered how easy it is to set up an Edubuntu server running on a stable Ubuntu LTSP OS. Ten of these Dells ran smoothly and with minimal problems. The biggest caveat is that they don't play videos very well--a limitation of both the Dell box itself, and the fact that the Edubuntu environment isn't suited toward high res graphics processing. However, as a compensation for that, I got literally hundreds of truly educational software programs that were developed and targeted for students from K through 12. FREE! And not just throwaways or trials--these are sophisticated, well developed programs. The LibreOffice suite is completely compatible with MS-Office, too.

    • Joe Videtto
      May 12, 2012 at 12:33 pm

      "I got absolutely fed up with the time it took to make the continual updates not only to the XP-SP3 operating system, but to keep the machines clean and functioning"
      - this is exactly the point we're at - but it's hard for me to convince our less technical adminstrators and IT group that it's not the machines that are too old to be used productively, but the software installed on them and how it's managed (BTW - funding cuts in this school = not local school computer-adminstrator = "ok teachers - you're on your own - use the technology, and fix it if it's not working so you can use it")

      I would love to have our IT group as partners collaborating to solve the problem and maximize the school's productivity with these old machines. Hek - my car is a 97 Saturn, I'm not throwing it away 'til it really no longer serves me. It gets me from place to place.

      The IT's group suggestion around the problem is 'buy new ones'. Unfortunately, the school cannot possibly afford that, and it will take a number of years unless we can write some kind of grant and be lucky enough to win it.

      It's a sorry state of affairs to me when schools are told to integrate and utilize technology, and given a fixed budget where they're often choosing between, for example "do we lay some teachers off and increase class sizes so we can afford new computers that run reliably ?" And even with new computers, administering the software (making a variety of programs available across all machines in the school) is another huge task that goes unfunded because of other, very legitimate, priorities.

      By the way - I'd love some truly educational software programs - where did you get them ? And they run natively on Edubuntu ? I'm definitely going to see if we can set up a pilot project with your specific recommendations. I'd appreciate any other links or experineces you can share that would help.

  6. Johnson
    May 9, 2012 at 12:47 am

    RAM is 1 issue you can upgrade to speed up the loading of files.

    You mentioned that after a few months of using the computers or Internet, defrag your computer on weekly basic. Windows is a messy operating system where it will not put thing back to its original place but instead, they always put used file where it can find empty clusters.

    Always clear the Internet cache.

  7. muotechguy
    May 8, 2012 at 10:45 am

    In my experience, this is a fact of life with any version of Windows so far. Things just get cluttered, and a reinstall is the only way to fix.

    Personally, I fixed it by moving to OSX. Havent had to reinstall, ever.

  8. ha14
    May 7, 2012 at 10:08 pm

    Reboot and press F2 before Windows starts to load to open BIOS setup. Look for the CPU Speed Option.

    check the hard drive, if necessary to replace?
    if the motherboard need to be replaced for the issue with the overheating

    antivirus, firewall problem?

  9. Simon Barnett
    May 6, 2012 at 11:15 am

    Oh! Internet Explorer? World's worst browser.
    Avoid it and use Google Chrome:

  10. Simon Barnett
    May 6, 2012 at 11:10 am

    Hi Joe, how much RAM do they have? For best XP performance I would recommend between 1Gb - 1.5Gb RAM. Ideally use Windows 7 with 2Gb to 3Gb RAM, but I understand that may strain the budget. Here's the RAM spec:

    Memory Type: DDR PC2700, DDR PC3200, DDR (non-ECC)
    Maximum Memory: 4GB
    Slots: 4
    Each memory slot can hold DDR PC2700, DDR PC3200 with a maximum of 1GB per slot.

    Obviously RAM doesn't explain progressive slowing down, though I usually find that it overcomes the inevitable XP slowdown somewhat.

    The trade-off with XP is added malware vulnerability in SP2 vs. slowness in SP3.
    I would recommend removing any anti-virus / malware / adware software and using Microsoft Security Essentials. It's lighter on the system than most others:

    Do a one-click maintenance scan using Glary Utilities: http://www.glarysoft.com/
    (have a look at some of the other tabs of this excellent free utility suite)

    Clean browser caches using CCleaner: http://www.piriform.com/CCLEANER

  11. Oron
    May 6, 2012 at 10:23 am

    Joe, check out the size of Internet Explorer's cache or "Temporary Internet Folder" (Menu, Options, General tab, Browsing History [Settings]). It should be within the 10-100 MB range. If it's significantly bigger then that's almost certainly your problem. Reduce its size to 20 MB, delete the current history and see if this sorts out the problem.

    This is a common problem with older installations of XP. IE 8 sets its cache size sensibly, but older versions set it to a percentage of the total hard disc size, which usually leads to ridiculously large cache sizes, which, as they build up over time, slow down the computer drastically.

    As to the larger question (I note you asked another question about replacing the software altogether), Microsoft Steady State may be of use to you. It allows you to "freeze" the PC at a particular state (presumably newly rebuilt + updates & apps) and it returns to that state whenever you reboot the PC. Updating the PC is harder (since you need to "unfreeze" each PC before applying the updates), but it will stop performance degradation.
    As for defragging, I slightly disagree with Bruce. Ordinarily, defragging will not make a huge difference, but if the system is heavily fragrmented, as it would be if the disc is full or you have a very large number of files (IE cache again!) then it can make a very big difference. I recommend "My Defrag" which is a free defragger and optimiser. It's not much of a looker, but the optimiser does a terrific job in laying out the files optimally on the disc, and I have seen systems transformed simply by running it once.

  12. Bruce Epper
    May 6, 2012 at 8:52 am

    Are the users adding additional programs, especially those that will run at system startup and remain running until the system is shutdown?

    Are temporary and cached files cleared on a regular basis?

    Are extensions, add-ins or toolbars added to the installed browsers? These are a common source of slowing systems, sometimes even if the browser is not running.

    Is the pagefile configured as a fixed size file or is it constantly resizing during normal operations? A fixed size pagefile is always a better option when possible. Unless heavy video or graphics editing is happening (which will take forever on these P4 systems), you are better served with a fixed size pagefile. It also can also help if the machines are configured to dump the pagefile at shutdown. The shutdown process will take longer, but you will have enhanced security and the contents of the file will not be there to interfere the next time the system is started.

    Defragmenting the hard drive can also help, but the performance gains are not usually very large unless you are dealing with a lot of files that have their contents changed on a regular basis causing HUGE amounts of fragmentation. Current versions of DiskKeeper can help prevent files from becoming fragmented in the first place if this is a big problem for you. If an analysis of disk fragmentation over the course of a week of normal use or so does not result in a fragmentation level over 20%, the performance loss on the machines from running the software will not be worth the savings in file fragmentation.

    Having the latest service pack, OS and application updates, and especially drivers will frequently help performance.

    The service pack, update, driver, and pagefile issues should be addressed in the image used by support so it will apply to all machines every time they need to be reimaged.

    The issue of user added software can be combatted by ensuring they run as standard users and not administrators as well as Group Policy to limit the actions users can take.

    The issue of temporary and cached files can be addressed with login/logout scripts to clear those files and directories automatically.

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